Celtics send clear-cut message

PHILADELPHIA -- Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers said in recent days that the Philadelphia 76ers had outplayed his squad over the first two games of an Eastern Conference semifinal series and that Boston might have been lucky to simply emerge with a split over two games at TD Garden.

But make no mistake: Celtics players -- and likely Rivers himself -- believed they should have won both games and were downright embarrassed by some aspects of a Game 2 loss in which Boston labored through three offensively anemic quarters, then made uncharacteristic mental mistakes at both ends of the floor down the stretch.

Even so, Keyon Dooling admitted that the 76ers "came and hit us in our mouth on our home court. That didn't leave a good taste in our mouths."

Kevin Garnett, disappointed in the performance of his team and himself, sounded off in the Boston locker room about getting back to basics, including the "Ubuntu" team-first mentality that guided the 2008 championship campaign.

After a day to ponder that loss and the postgame message, the Celtics reconvened on the court in Philadelphia on Wednesday afternoon, where Rajon Rondo put the team through what Rivers dubbed an "extremely serious" shootaround. That focused effort carried over to Game 3 as the Celtics thrived on both ends en route to a 107-91 thrashing of the 76ers at Wells Fargo Center.

Boston now leads the series two games to one.

As Dooling said: "We did a good job of bouncing back, kind of making a statement."

Garnett -- who, after dominating efforts in Game 6 against the Hawks and Game 1 against the 76ers, didn't assert himself offensively in Game 2 and got whistled for an illegal screen with 10 seconds remaining as Boston tried to generate a tying bucket -- admitted Monday's loss didn't sit well with him.

"I was [angry]," Garnett said. "After the game I came in and just said, 'We're not going to beat anybody -- JV teams or high school teams -- if we're not going to play together. We've worked so hard to get to where we're at and we got there together.

"Ubuntu, we've been preaching that since I've been here. I had to just remind the guys -- including the younger guys, the new guys -- on how we succeed here and the creed, Celtics basketball and what we are here. I just had to reiterate that."

Then the veterans reiterated it on the court.

Garnett went to the post early and often, and the ball followed each time. Through three quarters, Garnett was 8-for-8 from 16 feet and closer, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and 10-of-13 overall from the field. He finished with 27 points (on 12-of-17 shooting) with 13 rebounds and four assists over 30:12.

Paul Pierce, who looked particularly hobbled in Game 2 and did little to impact the contest while battling an MCL sprain in his left knee, responded in typical Pierce fashion Wednesday. He connected on just 6 of 17 shots, but he got to the free throw line a whopping 14 times (making 11), while chipping in 24 points and 12 rebounds over a particularly gritty 36:34. Pierce could be heard grunting loudly as he seemingly enforced his will on the game despite the ailing knee.

What's more, Pierce showed previously unseen explosion, getting to the rack for two first-quarter dunks that answered all the health questions that he's already tired of fielding.

"I just wanted to be aggressive," Pierce said. "Everything I wanted to do was going to be aggressive."

And then there was Rondo, who looked like he was trying to run up his assist total at times early in Game 2, often kicking out potential layups to teammates for perimeter looks. Those potential easy points loom large in hindsight of a one-point loss.

Rondo was in full attack mode Wednesday, scoring 13 first-quarter points before generating his first assist of the night. He finished with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting with 14 assists, six rebounds and only one turnover in 40:44.

"I would say that I believed we needed this game," Rondo said. "I think our team responded well tonight. It wasn't just me; it was everyone. We were all pretty focused today at shootaround. Obviously, we had two close games at home and we wanted to show these guys -- send a message tonight -- and I think we did a pretty good job of that."

The message was received loud and clear.

"We ran into a Celtics team that had a real sense of purpose from them tonight," Philadelphia coach Doug Collins said. "Their three stars played great tonight -- Paul Pierce, Garnett [and] Rondo."

Later, Collins added, "My hat's off to them. You can tell with them, I think they're looking at that other [Eastern Conference] series a little bit, seeing [Miami's] Chris Bosh being out. I think they see a tremendous opportunity for themselves and you can just see with their game tonight that this is a much different team than we saw in Boston."

The question, of course, is whether Boston can sustain it. As encouraging as Wednesday's effort was, it's impossible to know on a night-to-night basis what this team's performance level will be.

It's clear, however, when the Celtics are engaged as they were in Game 3, they can compete with anybody and are capable of accomplishing their championship goals. When they lose sight of the process, they're just as likely to get toppled by an upstart No. 8 seed.

With Wednesday's win, the Celtics have once again obtained home-court advantage and momentum in this series. They can all but ensure their spot in the conference finals with a victory here Friday.

Which Celtics team will show up? Their postgame focus suggests they're locked in unlike at any other point in this postseason so far.

"When you beat a team like this at home, you have to expect them coming out with a lot of energy," Garnett said. "But we'll be ready and we'll have a lot of energy ourselves."

The Celtics had energy Wednesday and there's no doubt who deserved to win Game 3.